Second time the charm? Morris Museum plucks next director from prairie

Cleveland Johnson. Photo: National Music Museum.
Cleveland Johnson. Photo: National Music Museum.
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The next director of the Morris Museum is an Oxford-educated music historian who has studied in Germany and India and is an expert on the pipe organ.

Cleveland Johnson is scheduled to be introduced officially on Saturday evening at the museum’s annual gala in Morris Township.

“He’s a marvelous candidate, a great personality, and he’s going to be absolutely fantastic for the museum,” said Gerri Horn, president of the Morris Museum board.

Johnson, 61, served for the last five years as director of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, where he oversaw a $1.5 million budget, an 20-member staff and a collection of 15,000 historic instruments that includes a 17th century Stradivarius violin and a 1952 Gibson Les Paul electric guitar.

MORRIS MUSEUMThe Morris Museum has musical treasures, too — namely, the 150-piece Guinness Collection of 19th century music boxes and automata.

Johnson will be responsible for a $2.5 million budget, 25 employees, a 300-seat theater (the Bickford), and nearly 50,000 items ranging from gems and minerals to Native American dolls to model trains.

Trustees will be looking for him to restore stability to their 113-year-old institution after some turbulent times.

Their last full-time director, Linda Moore, left in November after a six-year stint. A successor, from a small New York museum, was announced in July but the move was scrapped days later without explanation from either side.

The economic crash of the late 2000s hit the Morris Museum hard, on the heels of an expensive 2007 expansion to accommodate the Guinness Collection. Staff turnover was high, and the museum lost many volunteers, including the Friends of the Morris Museum, a fund-raising team that clashed with Moore.

In Johnson, the Morris Museum appears to have found someone who moves easily among nonprofit-, community- and academic circles.

“You guys are lucky to get him,” said Scott Ray Lawrence, chairman of the National Music Museum.

Johnson’s initiatives there included overhauling that museum’s strategic planning, website, social media and online gift shop. Additionally, he lined up traveling exhibits and designed a concert series, Lawrence said.

“He had great ideas to move things forward… He’s great with people, really good connecting with people. We’re going to miss him. Our loss is definitely your gain. Be ready for looking at new ways of doing things,” Lawrence said.

 INDIANA TO INDIA TO THE PRAIRIE

Johnson taught for years at DePauw University in Indiana, where he became Dean of the School of Music before leaving in 2008 to become executive director of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship–which had funded his organ research in Germany in the late 1970s.

In 1984, Johnson earned a doctorate in music from Oxford University, where his dissertation focused on 16th- and 17th-century organ tablatures. He majored in music history and organ performance at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.

orchestrion
A German-built, Popper ‘Rex’ orchestrion, circa 1915, at the Morris Museum. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A 1999 study trip to India led to a sabbatical year there, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He studied Indian instruments, compiled an inventory of British-era pipe organs in Chennai, and then introduced non-Western music to the DePauw curriculum, according to an online biography.

At the National Music Museum, established in 1973 in the small prairie town of Vermillion, S.D., Johnson won a court battle to keep an Elvis Presley guitar in a collection that also features guitars owned by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Vermillion native Shawn Colvin, and a Bill Clinton saxophone.

An early user of the internet, Johnson is fascinated by the technology of musical instruments.

“Musical instruments are tools, and toolmaking is kind of what makes us human,” Johnson, who has seven children and stepchildren, told the Star Tribune newspaper last year.

“Someone had to design them. Someone had to build them. Look at a violin. How the hell did someone come up with that?”

Saturday’s Gatsby Gala also will honor the late Ruth Hennessey, a beloved volunteer and benefactor at the Morris Museum, while celebrating the opening of WOW: Wonderful Other Worlds, an exhibit by photographer and collage artist Ysabel LeMay.

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